As a new year marches in and winter snows arrive, I’m always caught off guard by the subtle beauty in the garden. Bright colors, hummingbirds and butterflies no longer catch my eye; they’re long gone. Instead, the beauty I find comes from different, more subtle sources. The snow lying on a perennial seed head, the creamy beige of an ornamental grass rustling in the wind, the frost crisping the edge of a leaf. Winter in the garden is a special time. But, nothing draws my attention more than my evergreens.
As I’ve built my perennial gardens and foundation plantings over the years here in Pennsylvania, I’ve tried my best to add unique evergreen shrubs to the mix. I find that though they may not take center stage during the growing season, they sure become the stars of the show when winter arrives. Not only do they provide color through their green or variegated foliage, they also lend an interesting form and texture to the winter landscape.
I’d like to introduce you to three of my favorite evergreens, ones that will move your garden beyond the ubiquitous boxwood and arborvitae. These varieties all have a home in my garden, and they are all unique and interesting for different reasons.
Dwarf Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa)
This is my favorite evergreen by far. Dwarf Hinoki cypress is a slow grower, taking 20 or more years to reach its mature height of 6 feet. The foliage is soft and fan-like, and the plant has a casual conical shape. Mine are sited in full sun and never need to be pruned. I did lose one a few years ago, however, because it was planted in a poorly drained area—Hinoki cypress do not like to have wet feet! There are several cultivars available, as well, including Nana Gracilis and one called Nana Lutea, a short variety, reaching only 3 feet at maturity and its foliage is a golden-yellow.
Siberian Cypress (Microbiota decussata)
Siberian cypress hails from Russia and is unique in that it is tolerant of partial shade, a trait not often found in conifers. I love this plant because it’s low-growing, reaching only 12 inches in height, and its soft foliage spreads out in sweeping fans. At maturity, Siberian cypress can be 8 feet across. Mine is about 4 years old, and it measures 4 feet across. I have it sited at the top of a rock wall as the plant does best in well-drained locations. The foliage turns a beautiful rusty red in the autumn, adding a colorful splash to my shade garden.
Gold Thread Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’)
The mounding form of this plant, coupled with its slender, draping foliage, make it a real treasure in the winter garden. At maturity, this evergreen will reach 8 feet tall, but I lightly trim mine every year to keep it at a height of 4 feet. Although it will tolerate partial shade, I find the foliage is more dense in higher light conditions. I’ve seen this plant used in commercial landscapes, where it’s often pruned into a tight little meatball shape. I find that such heavy pruning hides the beautiful, loosely conical, natural shape of this shrub. Plant it where it has plenty of room to shine.